Socially Uplifting

DBF has a job whose duties include staying up-to-date on urban policy, among many, many other topics.  As a result, she tends to read journals that I don’t.  She sent this wonderful link this morning, from a journal called “City Journal.

The article talks about the Queens Library in New York, Carnegie’s vision, and how these libraries are still doing the wonderful work they’ve been doing for over 100 years.   It’s a long read, but well worth the time.  Take a look.

The article discusses at length the library’s service to immigrant populations:

The directors, who shared the industrialist’s philanthropic vision of presenting opportunity to all comers, realized that one of the library’s key mandates would be to assimilate immigrants. The branches wooed newcomers unfamiliar with free public libraries, posting ads at local movie houses advising that “the public library is the working man’s college. Use it.” The libraries circulated flyers in Italian and Polish and advertised the availability of “books for businessmen” at ferry terminals and books “for mothers” at the Astoria milk station, recounts Jeffrey Kroessler in his centennial history of the Queens Library, Lighting the Way.

This, back in the 1800’s.   We sometimes forget, in the heat of arguments about new populations, that we are a nation of immigrants.  Queens hasn’t forgotten that, and have simply changed to reflect the new kids on the block.

Because nearly half of the residents of Queens are foreign-born, one of the library’s most practical services is to help the borough’s African, Asian, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern immigrants assimilate into American society, just as it helped German, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants become citizens a century ago. The library is particularly effective at this task, because it recognizes a key truth lost on many contemporary immigrant-advocacy groups: newcomers can’t succeed in America unless they speak English. Hence the library’s wildly popular, and free, English-for-Speakers-of-a-Second-Language program—the largest such initiative in the nation, serving 3,000 students annually. Each semester, the program must turn people away, sometimes two prospective students for every one who gets a slot.

How wonderful.  By the way, this is a good thing to mention to people who today question why the library is buying books in (fill in the language here.)  Unfortunately, the work these libraries are doing somehow didn’t reach the Mayor, who decided to cut funding:

But despite his plans to do more to fight poverty, Mayor Bloomberg has in fact cut the library’s budget, so that only 30 percent of its branches can now stay open on at least one weekend day, compared with over 90 percent before the cut. Critics would argue that the library isn’t an antipoverty program, since it depends on self-selection: people have to want to do well for the library to work. But to combat poverty, why not start by helping the many poor people who want to help themselves, like those thronging the libraries of Queens?

There are a couple of stories here that can be discussed at length.  The one that leaps out at me, however, is this: If we’re doing such wonderful work (and we are) and helping so many people (and we are) and effecting such positive change in people’s lives (and we do)…….WHY DON’T THE PEOPLE WHO CREATE THE BUDGETS KNOW THIS????

Given that we have a serious problem in this country with cities and counties cutting library services – or even closing their libraries completely –  I would suggest that this is something that we need to fix.  Immediately.  We need to find a way to tell our story, to let people know what we do and why it matters, and to find a way to let the people who hold the purse strings know that we’re not just nice to have – we’re essential.

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Filed under Customer Service, Libraries and Librarianship

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